Ken Burns interview: The Dust Bowl, climate change and the power of drought

Ken Burns talks with Crosscut's publisher about his latest film and looking backward into the future.
Crosscut archive image.

The Farm Security Administration commissioned Dorothea Lange to chronicle central Washington's Yakima Valley migrant and agricultural laborers in 1939.

Ken Burns talks with Crosscut's publisher about his latest film and looking backward into the future.

Ken Burns was in town again last week to promote his latest film, The Dust Bowl, which chronicles the historic devastation of farmlands in the southern plains states.

Seattle has become a regular and familiar stop for Burns. It turns out the city is among the top markets for his work, which he attributes to a high concentration of curiosity here. He’s also quick to point to success in places like Milwaukee and (sorry Sonics fans) Oklahoma City.

“Big Bird has a left wing and a right wing,” he tells me.

One of the most recognizable documentary filmmakers, Burns is a slight figure with a trademark hint of a goatee. He is soft-spoken and always quick with a smart quote, which he keeps tucked away in the film canister of his head.

“Your future lies behind you,” he told a reporter, when asked why he does not like to connect his films about historical topics to current political issues. He would rather teach us our past than comment on the present.

After a Friday lunchtime talk with donors inside a studio at KCTS, Burns settled into a sofa in the green room, afternoon cartoons playing on a nearby large screen TV.

It’s only a few days after the election and I ask him if 50 years from now the Ken Burns of that era might look at the history that led to popular support for gay marriage.

“Gay marriage would be a great story,” Burns says, instantly brainstorming themes and interviews.

He recalls talking with the first openly gay bishop within the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson. He told Bishop Robinson then that the controversy surrounding the Episcopal leader’s sexuality ignored the fact that there is simply not enough love in the world.

Burns said his documentary on prohibition already covered all of the relevant themes on pot legalization.

His new series, The Dust Bowl, will air in two parts, Nov. 18th and 19th, on KCTS (PBS). If you’ve watched much Burns, this film feels familiar. And not just because the dust bowl already has been so wonderfully chronicled in Tim Egan’s 2006 National Book Award-winning The Worst Hard Time.

Burns says that his team was already working on Dust Bowl when Egan’s book appeared. Rather than feel threatened by the competition, the team was excited — this was proof that the Dust Bowl is still a relevant story. They wondered if they could add anything and, in the end, felt they'd found stories even Egan might wish he had found — especially the Forester family members who appear in the documentary.

Dust Bowl showcases the dramatic black and white photographs and the knowing narration of Peter Coyote, and Dayton Duncan wrote the script, as he did for the National Parks film. Still, the survivors from Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado are the film's real stars. 

Now in their 80s, 90s and 100s, the men and women who survived the Dirty Thirties, as the Dust Bowl is known, offer gripping testimony of what this film calls one of the worst man-made environmental disasters ever.

Burns has an affection for the Dust Bowl survivors. You can see it and hear it in his voice. “They were children. When they tell this story it is an adult delivery, but it came from a child’s memory.”

He describes each of the people he met as “hard-working” and recalls one of the men telling him that “unless you’ve been poor, you can’t possibly be educated.”

The film's stars tell us that if you try to imagine the worst possible experience of daily living, this was even worse. Struggling for the right word to describe it, Dorothy Williamson from Colorado (who turns 100 in December) pauses, squints hard and blurts out – “Evil.”

Picture the outline of the Cascade or Olympic Mountain range off in the distance. That is what a coming dust storm looked like to those who still remember it. April 14, 1935, was called Black Sunday for its particularly deadly blow. Woody Guthrie’s "So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh’" was reportedly written that day.

If the crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd is the soundtrack of Burns’ Baseball, the howling, constant wind is the soundtrack of this one. If you could smell the smoke and hear the groans of a battlefield in The Civil War, you feel the sting of the dirt and the mid-day darkness in Dust Bowl.

As the Great Depression set in nationwide, farmers in the dust bowl region also faced severe and even fatal illness at the hands of dust-borne pneumonia. Burns tells us that the dirt from the Midwest spread East to Chicago and to New York City, halting ship travel in the Verrazano Narrows. President Roosevelt reportedly wiped a finger on his desk in Washington and found Oklahoma on his fingertip.

The culprit was, according to the film, farmers who were encouraged by their government to plow and plant their way to the good life. The Homestead Act and ever-rising wheat prices fueled the frenzy. "Rain follows the plow," of course, turned out to be nothing but a canard.

Dust Bowl has particular resonance for me, the grandson of two sets of Oklahoma grandparents, who were born in the early 1900s, survived the Great Depression and remembered the gathering dust storms in Cotton County. Whenever I visit Oklahoma, I always ask, "How’s the crop this year?" Faces were sadder and more resigned this year than most.

The Associated Press reported this fall that 48 percent of Oklahoma was in exceptional drought late this summer.

Washington is an agricultural state, and although rain seems plentiful, this past summer’s drought reminds us of just how fragile nature can be. Burns prescribes no policies. There is no call to action.

“Farmers will recognize [the practices in this film], and they will see themselves,” he told me. “They recognize the correct solutions.”

Few understand the lessons of the Dust Bowl here in the Pacific Northwest better than University of Washington history professor James N. Gregory. His books chronicle the southern diaspora, incuding Okie culture in California and elsewhere, and he has curated a website about the Great Depression period here in Washington state.

Washington's Yakima Valley saw noticeable numbers of dust bowl refugees. So much so that Dorothea Lange, whose Migrant Mother became the iconic photograph of the dust bowl era, was sent to Yakima by the Farm Security Administration to document the conditions of migrant farmworkers in Washington.

Gregory notes that the dust bowl of the 1930s was in some ways also a media event. "It was not the first and may not have been the worst, but it happened when news media was in full force and could tell the story in photos and film. They keep re-telling the story because it caught the imagination of a generation."

He feels the film will resonate locally because no disaster is just nature. It always involves people as well. In Seattle there is water where it didn't used to be. Hillsides have been altered. Dams have been built. "There are changes [here] to the land that will result in future problems," Gregory warns.

In the first episode of Dust Bowl, survivors recall the terror of the dust-storms and the resulting hunger and sickness. By the second episode, there is welcome relief. Families seek new lives in California and the government funds conservations efforts to break the drought. The soil is eventually stabilized and farms gradually rebuild.

And so, where does the best-known historical documentary filmmaker of our time turn his attention next? Burns said he is working on a film about "The Central Park 5," the story of five black and Latino teenagers wrongly convicted of raping a white woman in Central Park. He plans to examine FDR and Eleanor, Jackie Robinson, the Vietnam War and country music. 

In some ways, Burns says, his work is about "emotional archeology."


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About the Authors & Contributors

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw is a senior director in Microsoft’s strategy group.